Project based learning is motivating for students; working together in teams to produce something for a real audience engages students through its reality and relevance. As an English teacher, one of my early ‘eureka’ moments was designing a project in which teams of students set up a fundraising event in school. Students analysed non-fiction texts and wrote for different audiences and purposes; a letter to explain their ideas and ask permission from the head-teacher, an email to inform teachers, and a speech in an assembly to persuade other students to come.

I realised engagement and excitement could be effectively mixed with content and detail, and that even teaching apostrophes became important for students when they realised the head teacher would not be impressed by a letter that misused them. In addition to this, the development of skills such as teamwork in project based learning is essential. Not only does this enable students to complete future projects more successfully and independently, it also prepares them for when they leave school and have to work as part of a team either as an entrepreneur or an employee. There are of course problems with running projects and developing skills in terms of maximising student progression, but there are also some solutions.

The Problems

In project based learning students generally work in mixed ability teams towards the same outcome, therefore how can we ensure they are all making maximum progress? And if teamwork is itself one of the things you want students to improve, how can you differentiate for this soft skill?
Everyone has read blogs, books and been to CPD sessions on how to differentiate effectively, but this is normally focussed on how to differentiate for subject content and processes, not on how to differentiate for cross-subject skills such as teamwork.

Starting the Solution

Before any teacher can begin to differentiate, they need to know their students and understand their strengths and weaknesses. For maths or English, it’s easy enough to set a baseline test, and base planning on this, but it’s more difficult to accurately gauge a student’s ability to work well in a team. More difficult, not impossible.

One way you can begin to understand teamwork skills is by asking students to self-reflect on how well they’ve worked in a team before. At Enabling Enterprise we’ve developed a framework for measuring 8 of the skills students develop in project based learning and need for enterprise and employment. At the start of a project students self-assess their skills against this framework and therefore provide themselves and their teachers with a greater understanding of what skills they’re already strong at and what they need to develop. The other way to understand your students’ skills is through observation. One of the many great things about project based learning is that the teacher can spend much more time facilitating and observing groups rather than leading from the front of the class. Time and time again I’ve spoken teachers who’ve marvelled at the new understanding of their students this gives them.

Activating the Solution: Top Tips

Once you’ve gained an understanding of your students’ skills you’re ready to differentiate for them Many of the same practices of differentiation work for teamwork, just as they would for literacy. Here’s a few ways standard approaches to PBL can be used to ensure progression in teamwork:

1. Differentiation by task:

If students are working in mixed ability groups, give students different roles depending on their level. One project we run is a project in which a class produce a school newspaper they would write different articles depending on their literacy skills. Likewise, if they have different ability of teamwork they can do different tasks.

A Year 5 student who isn’t quite on track with teamwork can take responsibility for different jobs in their team, but doesn’t yet actively help with other jobs when people have finished. A Year 5 that is good at teamwork takes responsibility for jobs, helps other people, and helps their team to make decision.

In the same task as above, that of producing a school newspaper, you might differentiate for teamwork by giving the student who’s struggling with teamwork the job of ‘emergency journalist’, in which they are ‘on call’ to help other students that need it. To stretch the student who’s already confident at teamwork, you could make them the ‘editor’, who’s in charge of holding the initial meeting to decide on what content to put in the paper, listening to their team’s ideas and helping them come to a joint decision.

2. Differentiation by questioning:

Although it’s best to generally have students in mixed ability groupings for project based learning, you can make these groupings flexible. In a teamwork project you could have alternative groupings for reflection at the end of each lesson, which students get into to discuss their teamwork that lesson.
Just as you would to stretch and support in other subjects, you can use Bloom’s taxonomy to give each group questions that challenge them but that are still accessible for them on the same topic, for example on helping other people in the team.

For example, you could give one group questions on the comprehension of teamwork:
• How would you summarise how your team helped each other today?
• Can you explain one time your team helped each other today?

You could give another group questions analysing teamwork:
• How is helping team members related to good teamwork?
• What are the key things to think about when helping a team member?

A final group could have questions evaluating teamwork:
• How did different people in the team help others, and what was good and bad about the different ways they helped?
• How could you have helped each other more effectively?

3. Differentiation by support:

Once you know the different strengths of students in the class, you can use them to support others. You could form a set of teamwork experts in the class, who other students recognise as being the experts on teamwork and who they know they can go to for advice individually or that they can ask to be a ‘consultant’ for their team, watching them work as a team and offering feedback and advice afterwards.
In order to equip the experts with the confidence and knowledge they need to be effective, you could run a workshop with them, designing their job description and role-playing how they might help others. As new students improve their own teamwork skills, they too could join the team of experts.

Taking Teamwork Forward

Project based learning is worth investing your, and your students, time in. It engages students in the content of what they’re studying and provides an excellent opportunity for them to develop and reflect on their skills. Rather than relying on differentiation by outcome, start exploring how differentiation methods you use for other parts of the curriculum can also be used to differentiate teamwork. These same methods, with some thought and experimentation, can also be used to help differentiate for creativity, resilience, leadership, and problem-solving.

Enabling Enterprise are working in partnership with 140 schools and 70 top businesses to bring the world of work into the classroom. This year we have been awarded the Education Partnership of the Year Award for our work with schools and businesses. To find out how you can get involved, contact us.

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